Ulysses, a novel by the Irish writer James Joyce, is a key text of literary modernism. Divided into 18 chapters, it follows the structure of Homer’s Odyssey, the ancient Greek epic poem about Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War to his wife Penelope in Ithaca.
Joyce told a student in 1917 that he thought the Odyssey’s ‘all-embracing’ theme was ‘greater, more human, than that of Hamlet, Don Quixote, Dante, Faust’, and referred to Ulysses (Odysseus in Latin) as a pacifist, father, wanderer, musician and artist. In Ulysses, Joyce uses the format of Homer’s poem to tell his own everyday version of the epic tale. Here, Odysseus becomes Joyce’s quixotic anti-hero, Leopold Bloom, and the voyage home is condensed to a single day, 16 June 1904, in Dublin. Through his mock-epic parallels Joyce seems to celebrate and mock the ordinariness of Dublin life, both in language and action: the wine dark sea becomes ‘snot green’; the monster Cyclops is a bigoted drunk barfly, who goads and bullies Bloom; the bag of winds that blow Odysseus and his men off course, become the ‘hot air’ of the newspaper men in the episode ‘Aeolus’; once home, rather than slaying the suitors, Bloom notices with a resigned sadness, the impression that Molly’s lover has left in their bed. After telling Molly of his day, Bloom kisses her behind and falls asleep facing the wrong way down the bed.
Not only is the narrative structured around the Odyssey, but each episode is represented by a different organ of the body, colour, symbol, technique, art, place and particular time of day. In fact, Joyce created a schema, to help his friend and translator Carlo Linati find his way around the novel. By using a different writing style in each episode, the chapters take on their own character and unique challenge. In a 1920 letter, Joyce explained that the book was his ‘epic of two races (Israel – Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life)’, writing that his intention was ‘to allow each adventure to condition and even to create its own technique’. Here we can see that while Joyce reduces the epic narrative of Homer to the narrow quotidian routines of Edwardian Dublin, the versatility of his language play expands the narrative once more, drawing on and experimenting with far-reaching literary and linguistic references, challenging expectations and allowing language to form an integral part of the identity of each episode. An aspect of this is the different ‘voices’ included in Joyce’s work. He draws on a wealth of influences, including popular culture as well as classical literary and cultural heritage. This includes modern contemporary voices such as the language of the press, of advertising and of men in the pub. Joyce’s celebration of the multiplicity of language creates in Ulysses a montage of voices. Out of these intricate and often daunting layers of detail and influence, Joyce is able to explore the lives of ordinary Dubliners, celebrate the malleability of language and effectively send up the flaws of human nature.
Joyce started work on the novel in 1914, and serial publication began in the Chicago Little Review in 1918–20. It met with scandal and controversy when the editors were found guilty of publishing obscene material. Joyce was finally able to publish the novel in Paris in 1922, thanks to Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company.